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Joint Swelling

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Last updated March 2, 2022

Joint swelling quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your swelling.

Understand your joint swelling symptoms, including 10 causes & common questions.

Joint swelling quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your swelling.

Take joint swelling quiz

Joint swelling symptoms

Swelling of any kind is the result of a buildup of fluid within soft tissue. When there is swelling in a joint, or joint effusion, it is either the surrounding tissue or the tissue lining the inside of the joint that swells — not the joint itself, which is made of bone and cartilage.

The swelling is most often secondary to trauma and only involves the joint that has been injured. However, if there has been no injury and more than one joint is swollen, it suggests there is some sort of systemic illness causing the swelling.

Common characteristics of joint swelling

If you're experiencing joint swelling, you are likely to also experience:

  • The swollen joint may or may not be painful
  • The joint will appear misshapen and enlarged
  • There is often joint stiffness: This will likely cause difficulty flexing or moving the joint.
  • There may be redness and heat over and around the swollen joint: Fever may also be present.
  • There may be rash, fever, fatigue, and weight loss

Duration of symptoms

Symptoms of joint swelling may be more temporary or persistent, again, depending on the cause.

  • Temporary: Swelling from a mild injury may resolve simply with rest.
  • Persistent: Most forms of joint swelling, especially if infection is involved, will not heal on their own and can get progressively worse if not treated.

Who is most often affected by joint swelling symptoms

The following people are more likely to experience joint swelling.

  • Athletes: This is often a sports injury. Acute trauma occurs due to being struck during play. Chronic wear and tear of a joint's cartilage occurs over time due to overuse.
  • Anyone involved in a motor vehicle accident
  • Anyone with one of several types of autoimmune illnesses: These conditions cause the body's immune system to attack its own healthy tissue, including the soft tissues in and around the joints.

When joint swelling symptoms are most likely to occur

Joint swelling is more likely at these times:

  • The morning: Swelling and stiffness due to an inflammatory process will be especially noticeable in the morning.
  • After exercise: Swelling and stiffness caused by wearing away of a joint's cartilage will be worse following exercise.

Are joint swelling symptoms serious?

The severity of joint swelling will ultimately be determined by the cause.

  • Not serious: Mild swelling following a minor injury is rarely serious, especially if the swelling goes down with rest and an ice pack.
  • Moderately serious: Persistent swelling that does not respond to rest, heat, ice, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs should be seen by a medical provider at the first opportunity.
  • Serious: Hot, swollen, painful joints must be treated right away in order to prevent further damage to the bone, cartilage, and lining of the joint.

Joint swelling causes

Musculoskeletal causes

The following can result in swelling of the soft tissue around the joint.

  • Fracture of a bone within the joint
  • Dislocation of the parts of the joint
  • Sprain: This is an over-stretching of the ligaments which hold the bones of a joint together.
  • Strain: This is an over-stretching of the tendons which attach muscles to bones.
  • Surgery on or near the joint
  • Wear and tear: Damage and wear to the cartilage at the ends of the bones, due to overuse for a long period of time.

Inflammatory causes

Swelling of the synovium, the inner lining of the joint, can be caused by the following. This lining swells due to inflammation and this inflammatory process causes the lining's fluid to increase, causing further swelling around the joint.

Infection

If the tissue in and around the joint becomes infected, this can lead to pain and swelling.

  • Injury: Any injury that reaches to the inside of the joint — usually a puncture wound — can introduce bacteria that will cause swelling, severe pain, and redness over the joint.
  • Damage from autoimmune disease: A joint damaged by an autoimmune disease can also become infected by bacteria, viruses, or fungus.

Synovial chondromatosis

Synovial chondromatosis is a disease affecting the synovium, which is a thin flexible membrane around a joint. It can often be confused with tendinitis and/or arthritis.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: joint swelling, pain in one knee, pain in one hip, swollen knee, spontaneous knee pain

Symptoms that always occur with synovial chondromatosis: joint swelling

Symptoms that never occur with synovial chondromatosis: fever, night sweats, unintentional weight loss, warm red ankle swelling, warm red knee swelling, warm and red elbow swelling

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Joint swelling quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your swelling.

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Skin cyst

A cyst is a small sac or lump, filled with fluid, air, fat, or other material, that begins to grow somewhere in the body for no apparent reason. A skin cyst is one that forms just beneath the skin.

It's believed that skin cysts form around trapped keratin cells – the cells that form the relatively tough outer layer of the skin.

These cysts are not contagious.

Anyone can get a skin cyst, but they are most common in those who are over age 18, have acne, or have injured the skin.

Symptoms include the appearance of a small, rounded lump under the skin. Cysts are normally painless unless infected, when they will be reddened and sore and contain pus.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination. A small cyst can be left alone, though if it is unsightly or large enough to interfere with movement it can be removed in a simple procedure done in a doctor's office. An infected cyst must be treated so that the infection does not spread.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: skin-colored armpit bump, marble sized armpit lump, small armpit lump

Symptoms that always occur with skin cyst: skin-colored armpit bump

Urgency: Wait and watch

Shoulder arthritis

Shoulder arthritis means that there is inflammation and abnormal wear of one or both of the two joints in the shoulder.

Arthritis in any joint is most often be caused by long-term wear and tear, called osteoarthritis; by an autoimmune condition that attacks the joints, called rheumatoid arthritis; or by an injury, called post-traumatic arthritis.

Symptoms include pain, which becomes worse with use of the joint; limited range of motion, meaning the shoulder joint cannot move as far as it once did; and pain when resting or trying to sleep.

Shoulder arthritis cannot be cured, but symptoms can be managed to improve quality of life and ease pain and discomfort.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and x-rays. To confirm, an injection of anesthetic may be placed into the joint. If the pain is eased, arthritis is almost certainly the cause.

Treatment involves physical therapy; nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to ease discomfort and inflammation; and corticosteroid injections into the shoulder to relieve pain. Surgery and shoulder joint replacement can be done in some cases.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the lining of the joints, causing them to become thickened and painful. It can also affect other parts of the body such as the heart, lungs, eyes, and circulatory system.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means the body's immune system turns against itself for unknown reasons.

Most at risk are women from ages 30-60. Other risk factors are family history, smoking, and obesity.

Early symptom include warm, swollen, stiff, painful joints, especially the fingers and toes; fatigue; and fever. Usually, the same joints on both sides of the body are affected.

If untreated, irreversible joint damage and deformity can occur, with other complications. Early diagnosis can allow preventive treatment to begin as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests; and x-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but the disease can be managed to improve quality of life. Treatment includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; steroids; anti-rheumatic drugs; physical therapy; and sometimes surgery to repair the joints.

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis is a complication of psoriasis, which causes the skin to become thickened, red, and scaly. Arthritis may appear before or after the psoriasis appears.

Both conditions are autoimmune diseases, where the body attacks itself, and are thought to be caused by genetic and environmental factors.

Most susceptible are people from 30 to 50 years of age with a family history of the disease and who already have psoriasis.

Symptoms include the joints on one or both sides of the body becoming painful, swollen, and hot; swelling and deformity of the fingers and toes; pitted, flaking fingernails; foot pain in the heels and soles; and joint pain in the low back pain.

It is important to seek treatment, as psoriatic arthritis can permanently damage the joints, eyes, and heart.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, x-rays, and MRI. Blood tests and joint fluid tests can confirm psoriatic arthritis.

Treatment includes over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; anti-rheumatic medication; immunosuppressants; and steroid injections for the joints. Surgery to replace damaged joints may also be tried.

Mild/moderate hip arthritis

Arthritis of the hip is inflammation of one or more of the joints in the hip. Pain, swelling, and stiffness are the primary symptoms of arthritis. Hip arthritis can make it hard to do many everyday activities, such as walking or climbing stairs. It is a major cause of lost work time and a serious disability for many people.

The goal of hip arthritis treatment is to relieve pain and maintain the function of the hip. Your doctor will be able to suggest a future course of action, such as pain medication, walking aids, or changing to more appropriate footwear.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: hip pain, difficulty walking, pain in one hip, limping, groin pain

Symptoms that always occur with mild/moderate hip arthritis: hip pain

Symptoms that never occur with mild/moderate hip arthritis: severe hip pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Lyme disease

Lyme disease is a bacterial illness transmitted through the bite of the deer tick (black-legged tick) after it has been attached for at least 36-48 hours. These may be tiny, immature ticks that are difficult to see, often attaching in a place on the body where hair grows.

The disease does not spread through casual contact, either between humans or between humans and pets.

Early symptoms include fever, chills, headache, and body aches. There may be a rash around the tick bite, which sometimes enlarges to form a clear circle around the bite.

Later symptoms are severe with headaches, neck stiffness, further rashes, facial drooping (palsy,) and joint pain and swelling. This is a medical emergency. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Untreated Lyme disease in a pregnant woman can lead to stillbirth, but antibiotics will usually prevent this.

Diagnosis is made through symptoms as well as a blood test.

Treatment consists of oral antibiotics in most cases, though severe cases may require IV antibiotics.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, irritability, muscle aches, loss of appetite

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Lower back arthritis

Osteoarthritis, most often simply called arthritis, is a disease of cartilage. In joints, where bones touch and move against one another, cartilage helps provide lubrication for smooth movement, and acts as a shock absorber. Cartilage is also present in between vertebrae, which are the bones comprising the spine. Osteoarthritis of the spine, also known as degenerative joint disease, happens when the cartilage between vertebrae dries out and shrinks. The vertebrae are thus not as able to move smoothly against one another. The ability to walk and perform normal daily activities can be impaired due to inflammation and pain in the lower back.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, spontaneous back pain, back pain that gets worse when straightening it, back pain from overuse

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Joint swelling quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your swelling.

Take joint swelling quiz

Knee arthritis

Knee arthritis means that there is inflammation and abnormal wear of one or both of the two joints in the knee.

Arthritis in any joint is most often be caused by long-term wear and tear, called osteoarthritis; by an autoimmune condition that attacks the joints, called rheumatoid arthritis; or by an injury, called post-traumatic arthritis.

Symptoms include pain, which becomes worse with use of the joint; limited range of motion, meaning the shoulder joint cannot move as far as it once did; and pain when resting or trying to sleep.

Knee arthritis cannot be cured, but symptoms can be managed to improve quality of life and ease pain and discomfort.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and x-rays. To confirm, an injection of anesthetic may be placed into the joint. If the pain is eased, arthritis is almost certainly the cause.

Treatment involves physical therapy; nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to ease discomfort and inflammation; and corticosteroid injections into the knee to relieve pain. Surgery and knee joint replacement can be done in some cases.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: pain in both knees, knee stiffness, knee instability, swollen knee, morning joint stiffness

Symptoms that always occur with knee arthritis: pain in both knees

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Crystalline deposits in the joints

Gout is a form of arthritis that causes sudden pain, stiffness, and swelling in a joint. The big toe is often affected, but it can also happen in other joints. Sometimes, the joint gets hot and red. Gout is caused by uric acid crystals. Risk factors for gout include obesity, eating a lot of meat, drinking beer, age (older), sex (male), and family history.

You should see a healthcare professional to see if uric acid crystals have accumulated in the joint. Gout can be diagnosed based on symptoms, but it's also common to take a sample of joint fluid for testing. A physician can give you a prescription for anti-inflammatory medications and/ or pain medications. There are also medications to stop your body from making too much uric acid. Sometimes, a shot in the joint can help with symptoms also.

Ankle arthritis

Arthritis simply means inflammation of the joints. Because the feet and ankles have many small joints and carry the weight of the body, they are often the first place that arthritis appears.

Ankle arthritis is caused by a breakdown in the protective cartilage at the end of each joint, so that the bones begin to wear against each other and the joint becomes stiff and painful. This breakdown may be due to simple wear and tear; an injury; or from rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune condition which causes the body to break down its own cartilage.

Symptoms include swelling, warmth, and redness in the joint, and pain with movement or with pressure on the joint.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging such as x-rays, CT scan, or MRI.

There is no cure for arthritis, but treatment is important because the symptoms can be managed to prevent further damage, ease pain, and improve quality of life. Treatment involves physical therapy, pain-relieving medications, and sometimes surgery to help repair damaged joints.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: swollen ankle, swollen foot, joint stiffness, pain in one ankle, ankle stiffness

Urgency: Self-treatment

Joint swelling treatments and relief

At-home treatment

You can try the following joint swelling remedies at home.

  • Elevate the joint: Raise the joint above the level of your heart by propping up the arm or leg on pillows.
  • Use ice or heat: Apply ice packs or hot packs to the painful, swollen joints, depending on which is more effective.
  • NSAIDs: Take over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or aspirin, to help reduce pain and swelling.

When to see a doctor

You should see your doctor to address the following.

  • Persistent joint swelling following a mild to moderate injury: This means the swelling has not gone down after two to three days.
  • Swelling that occurs for no apparent reason
  • Swelling that occurs in the presence of other symptoms of illness: Such as fever or body aches
  • Physical therapy: This may be recommended once an injured joint is ready to heal.

When it is an emergency

Seek immediate swollen joint treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if:

  • You have a fever and multiple swollen joints
  • Worsening injury: Any acute injury to a joint with rapid swelling, deformity, and pain should be addressed immediately.

Questions your doctor may ask about joint swelling

  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • What is your body mass?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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References

  1. Joint Swelling. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus Link. Updated Jan. 7, 2019. MedlinePlus Link
  2. Kormos W. What makes my joints stiff in the morning? Harvard Men's Health Watch. October 2016. Harvard Men's Health Link
  3. Gout and Pseudogout. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. ASSH Link
  4. Schmitt S. Infectious Arthritis (Septic Arthritis). Merck Manual Consumer Version. Merck Manuals Consumer Version Link
  5. What Are Common Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease? Johns Hopkins Medicine: Healthy Woman. Johns Hopkins Medicine Link
  6. Liu JT, Yeh HM, Liu SY, Chen KT. Psoriatic arthritis: Epidemiology, diagnosis, and treatment. World J Orthop. 2014;5(4):537-43. Published Sept. 18, 2014. NCBI Link